Can you defy the 90-9-1 Rule?

At this point, you’ve probably heard discussion of the “90-9-1 Rule”. Jakob Nielsen describes it this way:

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.

Whether looking at small gaming forums or sites like Wikipedia or YouTube, the ratios might be slightly different but the premise is the same – a majority of your community’s members are mostly benchwarmers. And that’s OK.

Or is it?

Aleksei points out an significant issue:

This situation also has one unwanted side effect: your community starts to reflect the opinion of minority, not people’s opinion, and when people see that “these folks post wierd things”, they like your site less. And less. And finally they leave.

Ah, the balance of organizing/driving/supporting communities. Aleksei gives a few specific suggestions to deal with this.

What can you do? You should encourage your visitors to become registered members, and encourage your members to contribute. How? There several ways I see:

  • make registration and contribution (whatever contribution means in your case) as simple as possible. And even more simple. Very good examples of this are Reddit and lOOnstart: you just have to enter your email address and password and – viola – you’re in!
  • reward active members. Limit something tasty to registered users only. Limit something really tasty to active members only. But you have to be careful with the limits: if they are too high, people won’t even try to reach them.
  • make the contribution a side effect. Design your site in a such way so people will actually contribute without doing anything. Well, the simplest example is using a content views count as a rating. Of course, it’s not the best rating factor, but could be used in cooperation with another rating system, like stars, comments, votes up/down, etc. Other, better example is Amazon‘s “Customers who bought this item also bought” thing.
  • force people to contribute. My first PHP/MySQL gig was creating a photo-rating site (thanks God, that site no longer exists, it was awful, just the idea was good). Some people would upload their pics there, others browse them. But to see next picture, one should rate the previous one. Invent something less straightforward.

And, of course, the main is just keep your site usable, useful and/or fun. If people don’t like it, they won’t do anything for you. Good luck!

One thing I’d add is that there’s a difference between reward and award. Rewards can get dangerous because you can get into a “reward cycle”, where people spend far too much time running after the rewards and expecting “tangible” goodies. Awards can have the same effect, but mentally satisfying without the bitter “where’s my next round of goodies” aftertaste.